In support of Biden being Biden

Posted May 08, 2009, at 7:05 p.m.

You have to hand it to Vice President Joe Biden and his impolitic compulsion to shoot from the lip while straying from the reservation when it comes to Obama administration talking points on any given subject.

If not for the man’s knack for putting his foot in his mouth with his candid and sometimes politically incorrect expressions of opinion, the public would be deprived of the enjoyment of watching the vice presidential damage control section go into full red-alert mode to clean up the resulting fallout.

Biden’s latest gaffe concerned the swine flu, which is officially known in Washington as the H1N1 virus in order not to offend the swine constituency. Last week on NBC’s “Today” show, Biden told a national television audience that he had urged his family to avoid such modes of transportation as commercial airlines and subways, where one sneeze can liberally spread germs around.

“If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing,” Biden said. “If you’re in a closed aircraft or a closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it’s a different thing.”

That may seem only common sense to you, or to me. But it turns out there was one minor flaw in the vice president’s counsel for avoiding the plague: The Obama administration had issued no such policy. It had cautioned against nonessential travel to Mexico, but not against travel within the United States, and it had suggested that the sick should stay home, but not the healthy. In short, it had gone out of its way to accommodate the travel industry, and the man only a heartbeat away from running the show had undone everything in one fell swoop. Oops.

Practically before Biden had left the television studio his damage-control spinmeisters issued a statement attempting to convince the American public that it hadn’t heard what it had heard. You know the drill: Some poor sap who has drawn the short straw rolls his eyes heavenward and asks, “Why me, oh Lord?” and then goes before the cameras to tell reporters, “I know you believe you heard what you think the vice president might have said, but I am not sure that you understand that what you think you heard is not what he meant to say.” Or words to that effect.

A spokeswoman insisted, with a straight face, that Biden was, in fact, reading from the same page as the administration on the swine flu situation. “The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: That they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico,” the lady declared.

“If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week,” the damage controller insisted.

But that wasn’t what Biden had said on television. He hadn’t included the caveat, “if they are sick” in his remarks. He had flat-out said, “I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now.”

Anyone who watched the “Today” program or has seen clips from the show knows that. Biden knows it, Damage Control Lady knows it and a national television audience knows it. No matter. We’ve come to expect such revisionist exercises from our politicians and their handlers, and so we just snicker at the absurdity and get on with our lives.

The business of trying to hornswoggle a skeptical public into believing it is too numb to know what it has just seen and heard must be frustrating. One can imagine the explainer-in-chief longing for simpler days when spin was something a baseball pitcher applied to his curve ball and damage control was the province of firefighters and disaster relief workers.

By now, I suppose, President Obama has resigned himself to the futility of teaching an old dawg any new tricks wherein it pertains to staying on message. Still, a nation that has come to cherish its Biden-isms can only hope that the president chooses not to muzzle his loquacious sidekick.

For an administration seemingly devoid of spontaneity in its love affair with the teleprompter, Biden being Biden represents a refreshing change that even skeptics can believe in.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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